• RSS

While the movers, shakers, makers, and breakers of the world’s twenty richest nations convened in London last March, I went to Turkey, to a different ingathering of nations. In Iznik, a sleepy lakeside town three hours east of Istanbul, thirty-five citizens of seventeen countries talked about finances, dined at long communal tables, and assembled, like our counterparts in London, for a group photo. But no interpreters were in evidence; none were needed, since our four days of talks and tours, cabaret and chitchat were all in la bela lingvo, Esperanto.

Yes, people still speak Esperanto, most of them part-time; they also write, dream, have toothaches, and make love in it, like people who speak any other language. They’ve been at it since 1887, when a Polish Jewish oculist named L. L. Zamenhof published, in a Russian-language pamphlet, an outline of his new “international language”: nine hundred roots drawn from Romance, Slavic, and Germanic languages, to be inflected and combined according to sixteen grammatical rules. The language took its name from Zamenhof’s pseudonym, Doktoro Esperanto, meaning “one who hopes.” In photographs, Zamenhof looks like a daydreaming Sigmund Freud, just another mittel European Jewish doctor bent on healing something more imposing than the human body.

Esperanto is a strange animal, a utopian language movement. During the first half of the twentieth century, it thrived as a movement because it was a language, not a revolution, and it thrived as a language because it moved with and adapted to its users, as long as they kept its sixteen inviolable rules—netuàsebla—untouchable. (The closest thing to an amendment has been an informal seventeenth rule, “Your spouse doesn’t like Esperanto.”) From its modest beginnings, Esperanto has grown on the tongues of its speakers, for whom nothing—nothing that one is determined to share with another—is beyond translation. But for all its utopianism, the movement’s reality is that Esperantists live in many worlds at once. They are global citizens, born into clans, nations, and religions; they endorse the movement’s political neutrality but belong to political parties. They are the reason that, despite the predations of Hitler and Stalin, each of whom thought Esperanto dangerously cosmopolitan (read: Jewish), Esperanto survived to see its lexicon blossom into hundreds of thousands of words, and it lives on and on, with new transfusions of energy from media-savvy millennials in Vietnam, Brazil, and Nepal. These days Esperantists are busy having meetings in Second Life (Dua Vivo), translating Harry Potter, and minting coinages for things we learned to do just yesterday like Google (gugli) and YouTube (jutubumi).

Though Zamenhof defined an Esperantist as a person who uses the language for any purpose, those who join clubs, carpool to the annual congress, or board a plane to Turkey are the ones for whom Esperanto is more than a language. Some, like Israeli Tom Yuval, use it to talk through walls. Two years ago, while the Israeli government was busy building a concrete barrier between Israelis and Palestinians, Tom, along with an Italian and a Jordanian, convened in Amman the “First Middle-Eastern Conference” of Esperantists. More than half of the twenty-five attendees were Israelis; there were three Turks and a couple of venturesome Europeans. That only a handful of Arabs attended, all but one of them Jordanian, was disappointing to Tom but came as no surprise.

What was surprising was the revelation, by Israeli Esperantist Doron Modan, that this was hardly the first Middle-Eastern Conference. In fact, it was preceded by nearly twenty-five years of encounters, from 1924 to 1948, between the Palestina Esperanto-Ligo (PEL), a group of Jewish Esperantists in British Palestine, and the Egipta Esperanto-Asocio (EEA), an assortment of Arabs, Britons, and others who convened in Cairo. As Modan explained, in May 1934 the first such conference, hosted by the PEL, took place during a three-day “Oriental Fair” held in Tel Aviv, drawing more than one hundred participants, including several Egyptians. It was during this fair that Zamenhof Street, which remains in Tel Aviv to this day, was solemnly dedicated to the memory of “Doktoro Esperanto.” During the next decade, Jews and Arabs in Palestine collaborated on Esperanto instructional materials, published both in Hebrew and Arabic. Meanwhile, in Egypt, a Coptic Esperantist named Tadros Megalli had begun teaching Esperanto to small groups of Egyptians and soldiers from Britain and New Zealand, plus a class of young girls.

In Palestine with his student, Nassif Isaac, to attend a PEL congress in April 1944, Megalli visited a couple of Jewish agricultural settlements, and his post-congress effusions in the Arabic-language magazine Asyut were worthy of a Jewish Agency newsreel: “We truly admired the magnificent labors undertaken by the Jews, who created, from the rocks and desert soil, fecund and fruit-bearing earth.” An invitation to PEL members to attend the first Egyptian national congress, an eight-day extravaganza to include visits to both mosques and synagogues and a train trip to the pyramids, elicited one hundred ten enthusiastic pledges. A failure to obtain visas for PEL members spurred one Jewish Esperantist to propose a new umbrella organization, the Near-Eastern Esperanto League (PROEL), to be based in Cairo. A counterproposal emerged, from another Jewish member of PEL: a series of coordinated, joint ventures for the EEA and the PEL, including a shared headquarters, which would alternate between Tel Aviv and Cairo; a committee to entreat the Universal Esperanto Association to hold an upcoming annual congress in the Near East; and a collaboratively edited bulletin. As Jews, they were building a Jewish state, but as Esperantists, they saw themselves as Near-Easterners.

But two weeks before the liberation of Buchenwald, when the PEL next convened in Jerusalem, neither the Egyptians nor the local Arabs attended. Between the end of World War II and 1948, Modan found only occasional gestures of goodwill and sporadic visits between EEA and PEL members. When the grapeshot of scattered Arab-Jewish conflicts became artillery rounds, relations between the PEL and EEA ceased and their fortunes diverged. The PEL, now the Esperanto League of Israel (ELI), licked its wounds and welcomed a new influx of Esperantists from among the Jewish refugees. But the war of 1948-9 put paid to Esperanto in Egypt, and by 1951, with most of its foreign membership having dispersed, the EEA lapsed. Nassif Isaac, photographed in 1944 on a Jerusalem street, arm in arm with his Egyptian mentor and Jewish samideanoj—literally, “same-ideaniks,” what Esperantists affectionately call one another—went on to write books about spiritualism and reincarnation. He himself became a revenant, year after year, the sole Arab delegate to the Universal Congress.

The road from Istanbul to Iznik winds past highrises, sport stadiums and blacktops, bumps up against the ferry port at the Sea of Marmara and resumes, on the far shore, in countryside. We drive past olive groves and fields of anemones studded with beehives; the tangy honeycombs of Turkish bees, busier at their labors than all but Chinese bees, taste like the bees went out for curry the night before.

On the bus, I’m sitting with conference organizer Murat Ozdizdar, a compact, smooth-shaven high school chemistry teacher in his midforties. In an olive-green Timberland fleece, he looks game and prepared, like a hiker heading into the backwoods. Murat and I have met before, at an Esperanto conference in Hanoi. Since then he’s traveled overland in Nepal and Cambodia, and he itemizes on his fingers (in euros), the fantastic economies he discovered there. When he visited America, the generosity of American acquaintances—the in-laws of a cousin’s friend, the friends of a cousin’s in-laws—proved a perfect complement (in dollars) for his own stunning feats of thrift. Murat, with an eye to the future of the Turkish movement, has in tow three of his star chemistry students. After a two-week crash course in Esperanto with a teacher flown in from Serbia, they will soon be up and running. But not yet: now they’re chatting in Turkish, sprawled over comic books, dozing over their iPods. From time to time, Ringo Starr begins to sing “In the towowown where I was born” and someone answers a cell phone. Also on the bus are Branko, a Serbian actor and Esperanto broadcaster, formerly in aeronautics (“times were OK on earth, but not so good in the sky”) and Adrian, an affable, worldly, retired public health professor from Maastricht who tells me his mother was Anne Frank’s third-grade teacher. “Was she unusual?” I ask, and he shrugs, as if to say, no man is a hero to his valet. Adrian now runs a B&B called Esperanto Domo; Esperantists stay gratis. When we arrive in Iznik, he peers at a city map, swiftly decodes the iconic beer steins ringing the lake, and heads lakeward.

Iznik, famed for brilliant floral tiles that line the walls of the harem in Topkapi Palace, is an unlikely site for a ceramics industry. It’s located on a fault line thirty minutes from the site of an earthquake that killed an estimated forty thousand people ten years ago and remains, as a Turkish conferee put it, “seismologically interesting.” In fact, Murat’s nose for a bargain has sniffed out a dormitory for seismologists, where shared rooms go for twelve euros (sixteen dollars) per night. There is no registration table, no written program, no solena malfermo (official opening) at which the Esperanto anthem, Zamenhof’s hymn “La Espero,” is customarily sung. There are also no nametags, that standby of Esperanto gatherings, but within hours people have improvised them from luggage tags.

If you go to a Middle Eastern Esperanto congress expecting panels on Turkish-Israeli tensions, Iranian armaments, or civilian casualties in Gaza, you will be disappointed. As far as programming goes, Esperanto conferences operate much like high school student councils, where the agenda is invariably the student council itself. Here the agenda, scrawled in the lobby on a whiteboard, revolves around the movement and, as a secondary matter, the language. There are talks on the “E-movado” (Esperanto movement) in Israel, Turkey, and, as the conference opener, Iran. The latter will be delivered by Nader, a voluble pediatric cardiologist from Tehran, who is busy setting up his PowerPoint presentation.

I knew Nader only through correspondence. Before the conference, I had sent out a call for Esperanto poems for a session I was preparing; within ten minutes Nader had e-mailed me the manuscript of an entire volume of original Esperanto poems by Iranians, edited by himself. Among dozens of odes to springtime, friends, and lovers, Nader’s own 2003 poem “The Blackened Gull” stood out. The gull, begrimed with naphtha from oilfields burned in Operation Desert Storm, bears witness to:

Ligo inter àstatoj,
Plene armitaj soldatoj,
Bombo-riàcaj Virkatoj,
Malfeliàcaj atakatoj.
A league among states,
Heavily armed soldiers,
Bomb-brimming Tomcats
Dreadful attacks.

I was surprised to find verse about my own toxic, belligerent country; except for satires about fascism, Esperanto poetry generally falls into line with the movement’s revered tradition of political neutrality. Did it make a difference that this was a gull, not an Iraqi, croaking defiance—and in Esperanto? Perhaps not. But perhaps, yes; now, as his bullet points flash on the screen, Nader makes no mention of Tomcats, or Desert Storm, nor of all the things we Americans talk about when we talk about Iran: nuclear arsenals, antisemitism, smiles and guns for Hezbollah. Instead, it showed Iranian Esperantists, young and old, men and women—some headscarved, some not—dancing at a Norouz party, trekking in Azerbaijan, and teaching the lingvo de paco (language of peace) to Afghan refugees. Next, Gabi, a hip, black-clad Israeli wearing clunky pewter beads shaped in stars of David, crosses, and crescents, gives a brief update about the activities of the Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa clubs. As in Iran, so in Israel: dancing, trekking, teaching.

Next, a lecture on landnomoj (names of countries), apparently, a landmine of a topic. The lecturer is Anna Lowenstein, an Esperantic household name. She’s a slim, no-nonsense Briton who lives near Rome with her husband, Renato Corsetti, President Emeritus of the Universal Esperanto Association and yes, they speak Esperanto all the time. Anna founded the first feminist journal in Esperanto, Sekso kaj Egaleco (Sex and Equality), wrote two Esperanto-language historical novels, and sits on the Academy, which issues nonbinding opinions on language questions. (An Academy member once explained to me that all this happens at the second of their two annual meetings; at the first, they decide when to hold the second meeting.)

Anna promises to dispel, for once and all, the confusion around country names. One only needs to understand the rationale, she insists. Countries based on nationalities are formed from the name of the people. “Italoj live in Italujo,” we repeat after her, using the “container” suffix, ujo for the place containing Italians. But, she goes on, the names of certain countries, especially multiethnic ones, are the basis for naming their citizens. Instead of naming the country after the people, one names the citizens after the country using the “member” suffix, ano: Israelo, Israelanoj. What Anna doesn’t say is that the “rationale” has all the rationality of Europe’s borders since 1887, which have shaped and reshaped themselves around empires, nations, colonies, and treaties. To complicate matters, there’s a tomayto-tomahto factor caused by a tendency to drop the ujo ending for the more internationalized io. Anna advises us to avoid this, since it leads to confusion when the root itself ends in “i.” “A Burundian,” she continues—

“But why not ask the Burundians?” demands Agnes tartly; she’s a gravel-voiced, Flemish-speaking Belgian and, during breaks on the dorm patio, the lone smoker in the group. “For example, Esperanto for Flanders is Flandrio—but that’s a Romanization; a more natural, Germanic ending would be Flandren. So why should the Academy dictate to the Burundians what to call themselves?”

“We’re not doing that,” replies Miguel, a full-time Esperanto teacher from Spain with an accent sharp as aguardiente. “Anyway, why should the international language honor tribal practices? No nation’s calling itself by a natural name; language is a cultural convention.” The night before, he had directed me to his website to listen to his Esperanto poem about a shamed samurai recited to the accompaniment of shakuhachi flutes. “It’s crucial for academics like you to get the word out about the movement,” he’d said urgently. “Chomsky, you remember, says it isn’t really a language.” And he’d winced; between him and Chomsky, it was personal.

At the end of the morning session, Renato raises the question of where the third annual Middle Eastern Conference should be held; not every country in the region is as welcoming as Turkey. Egypt would be great, he says, but the Iranians will not be able to get visas. Kuwait would be great, too, but here the Israelis would be odd man out. So, Tunisia? Not exactly a thriving movement, but it could be done on the cheap and Renato knows someone there in a Berber village; he knows someone everywhere. Murmurs of enthusiasm from the Turks, the Iranians, the lone American (me), and the Israelis, who will head for Jerusalem in a few days to prepare for Passover. It’s resolved: next year in Tunisia.

Avishai Margalit recently asked what became of the third member of the revolutionary trinity of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Well, not to worry, the runt of the litter is being fed on royal jelly here in Esperantujo. And if you’ve followed the language all the way to Esperantujo, it’s because you were looking for something. It’s not the ideals of Esperanto that compel Esperantists; it’s the idealism, a reason to keep faith, against all evidence, with our species. During conferences like this one, dislocated, sped-up, and twenty-four-sevened, they’re positively exuberant; just speaking the language, with its railroad-flat compounds and exotic adverbs, makes them tipsy with pleasure, as familiar with one another as college roommates, army buddies, colleagues denied tenure the same day. They’re all multilingual and multicultural; some are multiethnic and most are multinational. When you ask where they’re from, they draw invisible maps with a finger on the table then trace their trajectory. Dora Patel from Copenhagen turns out to be a Jew raised in Saint Albans, England. An Israeli computer scientist name Giovanni turns out to be a Turinese Catholic who married a Jew forty-three years ago against the protest of his in-laws. Both Miguel and a German named Albert say their surnames are judadevena—of Jewish origin; Albert, in fact, speaks English with a Scottish brogue, the residue of a sojourn in Aberdeen. (Esperantists use the word àskoda duso—a “Scottish shower” for a shower that alternately runs cold and scalds.)

For some, like Cemal, a light-eyed, lanky Turk with a dancer’s grace, it’s clear that Esperanto pushed open a heavy door. At twenty, while working in an electronics factory, he taught himself Esperanto from a book and promptly signed on with Pasporta Servo, the registry of those willing to host Esperantists for up to three nights, free of charge. Thirty years and hundreds of guests—“friends”—later, he’s traveled to New York, Detroit, Europe, Iran, Israel, and is aiming next for South America; he has a passion for the history of Argentina. He tells me he’s divorced, making a gesture more universal than Esperanto: two index fingers paralleled, then skewed apart. He sees his ten-year-old son on the other side of Istanbul regularly, he says, but not how regularly. When the fizzy talk about hosting and guesting washes down, there’s an air of sadness about him. We pass a graveyard and I ask him if Turks visit cemeteries. “Well,” he answers, “it depends on the Imam. If the Imam says go, they’ll go, otherwise . . . ” his voice trails off. “But me, I like to go in the winter.” He pauses. “To clear the snow off the names.”

On the way back from Bursa, a city famed for mausoleums, mosques, and Fiat factories, we stop and pile out at an obelisk defaced with the logo of a football team. Outside, the Turks all seem slightly embarrassed, even the teens, who are speaking Turkish with a tall man in an oversized gray sweater and a shaved head. He looks like Kojak on the weekend, and it turns out he’s an actor. Well, he says, switching from Turkish to Esperanto, he acts part-time and he also does voiceovers, but he’s actually a clown who performs in shows, in hospitals, on the street. “In a big country like America,” he says, gesturing toward me, “there’s so much work a person can specialize. But Turkish clowns, well, we have to do it all.” I teach the three chemistry students, who speak a smooth, slangless English, the phrase take a chill pill; in exchange, they fill me in on their favorite English author (Dan Brown), what websites are blocked in Turkey (Richard Dawkins, for his atheism), and in what situations you have to wash twice before entering a mosque (if you curse or fart). They want to know, since I’m a professor at Princeton, what kind of SAT scores will get them in. At lunch, over the local specialty of kebabs smothered in tomato sauce and melted butter, I ask them each what the kid next to him will be doing in ten years. Sly, mischievous smiles break out on all three faces and they all seem to be looking for tea leaves in one another’s eyes. “Him?” says Turhan, pointing to slender, serious Altan. “Working for NASA.” Altan points to heavy-lidded Serkan: “Business. Big business.” And Serkan slowly surveys Turhan, who forgot to pack jeans and has been wearing rolled-up versions of his school uniform since we left the city. “He’ll be a presenter on television.” Then, to guffaws, “a weatherman.”

By some miracle, on the final morning of the conference, Murat has scrounged up some loaves and fishes: four boxes of maizflakoj (cornflakes) and three liters of milk. While others crunch away, Murat and Cemal are explaining to two Poles, Tadeusz and Marta, how to catch a bus to the ferry. “You get on the bus,” Murat says, “and when it’s full it leaves.” “But when does it leave?” asks Tadeusz. Cemal, like a good doubles partner, swings at this one. “You get on the bus,” he says, “and when it’s full it leaves.” Tadeusz shrugs, tosses it to Marta, who asks, “But when does it leave?” Cemal looks across to Murat, as if to say: your ball.

The final talk, given by a professor of philology from Parma, is on stereotypes of Turks. It’s a PowerPoint parade of Italian insults, translated into Esperanto—to smoke like a Turk, think like a Turk, curse like a Turk; the Italians cry, when all falls into chaos, “Mamma, i turchi!” (Mama, it’s the Turks!). I feel as I did at an Episcopalian wedding I attended once, where an ­antisemitic joke was told, to raucous laughter, by the bride’s golf-pro uncle. (“What is the Jewish housewife’s favorite wine?—Taaaake me to Miaaami!”) It stung like soap in my eye, exactly as these insults do now, as if—what? As if we Esperantists had all, as Hamlet put it, “turned Turks”? As if, after years of touring what the Ottomans had rigged up or bitten away in their forays to Vienna, Budapest, Rhodes, and Jerusalem, the world had been remapped with Istanbul’s tulip-ringed palaces and azure mosques at its center and radiating out, Murat’s patience, Cemal’s sad kindness, and the gentle wisecracks of the student chemists. Between slides, Renato asks if anyone has heard of “Turk’s Head” contests, but no one has.

A week later, back in Princeton, I find an article from the May 9, 1854, New York Daily Times. It’s a gossipy dispatch from Paris by one “Dick Tinto,” who describes a peculiar diversion: “In all the public dancing gardens at Paris, is a contrivance to test strength of arm. It consists of a wooden head of a man, covered with thick cloth and mounted upon a spring; upon being struck by the fist, it descends to a point proportionate to the force employed, and a finger moving along a graduated scale, marks the degree attained. This head has represented of late years, and perhaps from time immemorial, the head of a Turk, and the number of blows the Mussulmans have received in his person is quite incredible.”

Obama has been following me, but he’s overshot the mark, standing erect before the Turkish Parliament in Ankara. We’re watching a big-screen TV on a ferry back to Istanbul—me, Cemal, Renato, Anna, Tadeusz, and Marta. Obama mouths the words while a female voice utters them in Turkish and Cemal translates into Esperanto. He’s talking, Cemal begins, about Turkish issues—normalizing relations between Turkey and Armenia (no G-word, at least not in this third-hand translation), reopening the Eastern Orthodox Halki Seminary, the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), lifting the ban on Kurdish broadcasting.

No, not just about Turkey; he’s talking about everything, everything we haven’t been discussing the past three days: Iran’s nuclear potential, America’s role in Iraq, Al Qaeda; he’s talking about reunification (Cyprus) and a two-state solution (Israel and Palestine). This is my president, I think, this is now, and by some strange global turn of only a few degrees, people all over the boat glance up from their tiny glasses of tea to watch and listen. “The work is never over,” Obama concludes, and the Esperantists exchange a knowing glance which seems to say: we could have told you that. Tadeusz observes wryly, “He was getting more applause at the beginning.” When we disembark and say àgis la revido—till next time—Cemal warns me that by ten the next morning, when Obama lands in Istanbul, all roads to the airport will be closed.

At 6:30 am, standing with my bags at the elevator, I step aside for the snipers in blotted camouflage who file up a spiral staircase to the rooftop garden. They’re dragging rifles, ammo, and iron stanchions on which they’ll position their sights to give Obama cover for his visit to the Blue Mosque. They’ll aim between the minarets, where just last night, gulls looped through rays of floodlight, patches of moonlight, and the darkness in between.